GAYS MILLS - So I woke up in Southern California on Wednesday, January 9, 2007, 2000 miles from home. I needed to meet up with Larry in Santa Barbara, get the car I was to drive back to Wisconsin and start that drive.
I met my good high school friend Craig at the Fullerton AMTRAC station at 8 a.m.. We rode the ‘Surfliner,’ $25 worth, about 125 miles, north to beautiful seaside Santa Barbara.
Craig and I got approximately six hours of talking in during our three-and-a-half-hour train ride.
The train took us through the incredibly developed LA basin to downtown Los Angeles, where most of the passengers got off. They were commuters. Southern California is not much for mass transit - the private car rules the road. Even though the train we rode was about two-thirds full, we represented only about .0000001 percent (rough estimate) of the people we saw on the freeways. I felt lots of twinges of sympathy for the gridlocked traffic we saw from the train. Eventually, the ‘Surfliner’ worked its way through the cities and suburbs out to the edge of the continent where, indeed, we saw some surf, some surfers, and lots of pretty scenery on our way up the coast.
Larry met us in Santa Barbara right on schedule. The train station looked like a movie set: Spanish motif, red-tile roof, clean, neat, and ready for its close-up Larry handed me the keys to my ride home. It was a California ‘Cream Puff’ - a beautifully maintained, low mileage, rust-free car. The 1993 Olds Cierra Station Wagon was in perfect condition and the odometer showed just over 56,000 miles. I quickly did the math in my head - it had been driven only about 4,000 miles a year. I would put half a year’s worth of miles on this car in the next three days.
Craig and I got another six hours of talking done on our four-hour ride back to his folk’s house. On the way, we stopped at a unique sports bar in Camarillo for lunch. It was Olas, (waves) a Mexican grill surf place. It had big screen TVs showing surf films continuously. It was definitely not part of a major chain and an interesting and good place to eat.
My good luck with traffic timing ran out after I dropped Craig off and I turned east to leave California and head for Las Vegas. We had avoided the morning rush hour traffic by taking the train. We had driven back south during the mid-day lull. However, as I set off at about 4 o’clock, I got a good taste of heavy stop-and-go traffic. The drive to Las Vegas, which under the best of conditions could be done in three hours, took me five hours. It took over two hours to get out of the LA basin via the Cajon Pass, a distance of about 60 miles.
I spent a pleasant 12 hours (9 p.m. to 9 a.m.) with my sister and her husband in sprawling, vibrant Las Vegas. One radio station there mentioned that the city is growing by nine people per hour. It makes every city I’ve ever been to seem like a sleepy little village. After a scrumptious breakfast burrito the next morning at Roberto’s, a blue collar eatery that Martha had introduced me to on a previous trip, Jim and Martha went to work and I started driving.
I drove over the Hoover Dam (water level very low) to get back down to Interstate 40 and the road home. The old Olds was serving me well and had no problem keeping up with the 70 mph flow of traffic. After a quick bite in Albuquerque after dark, I decided to put on a few more miles before calling it a day. The Atlas said that Santa Rosa, New Mexico had a population of 2,300, but they had 19 motels. I found an adequate one in my price range and slept well in the little desert town after logging 675 miles for the day.
Then things got interesting. The next morning the TV weatherman was saying something about the upcoming weather conditions that only happen every 20 years or so. Yikes! I was right on the edge of an extreme cold front coming from the north, which was meeting a stalled wet front in the south. This was Friday and he was predicting treacherous icy roads, major power outages and probable school and business closings up until Monday, three days away. As it turned out, he wasn’t wrong. The storm was a doozie and some 50 people died because of it.
I took off with a cautious and hopeful attitude. At a Tucumcari, New Mexico truck stop, which was clogged with trucks, cars, and RVs, I learned that I-40 was closed just ahead. I left the interstate and cut across country on a two-lane highway that slanted northeasterly, just the direction I wanted to go.
I got spooked a couple of times when the car started to ice up and the roads had that wet look that can be real trouble when the temperature is dropping. Luckily, the wet conditions didn’t last. One major problem surfaced when I couldn’t get the windshield washer to work. It had fluid in it but it had frozen up. I’m sure it was right for California conditions, but not what I was driving through. The temperature had dropped to between 15 and 20 degrees.
I pressed on all day and all night. I felt like making some miles, while racing the storm as long as the roads were dry. I didn’t see any place I wanted to get stranded. Surprisingly, I didn’t get tired. Shucks, I usually get tired just driving the 50 miles to LaCrosse. I think my adrenal gland was working overtime. I amazed myself by driving for 21-and-a-half hours. I set a new personal record for distance driving in “one day” or stretch even though it lopped over into two days: 1,102 miles. I beat the storm, was in seven states, and gave the Olds a good road test.
I got to my dad’s place in Prairie du Chien at 6 a.m. and was asleep on his couch when he discovered me later that morning. After a good nap and a hearty breakfast, I drove the last 32 miles to Gays Mills. Home looked good after a quick 4,000-mile trip.This column and the first part of it that ran last week originally appeared in a 2007 edition of the Independent-Scout.